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WASHINGTON — The House is working to change the way it has voted for the past 200 years to ensure members’ safety amid the coronavirus pandemic, allowing some members to cast votes without having to travel to Washington. But some Republicans oppose the idea, saying it would break with tradition.
The House is considering enacting voting by proxy — a process in which an absent member can give a colleague who is able to travel to the Capitol their vote to cast on their behalf.
“A Member casting a vote on behalf of another Member would be required to have exact direction from that Member on how to vote and would have to follow that direction,” Rep. Jim McGovern, chair of the House Rules Committee, which is drafting the new rules for proxy voting, wrote in a statement last week. “There would be no ability to give a general proxy. Members would have to direct each and every vote.”
Although House Speaker Nancy Pelosi was initially reluctant to support a remote voting policy, House leadership now supports the proxy voting idea, given the continued spread of the coronavirus. House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer went further than Pelosi, suggesting that congressional committees could work virtually as well, including working on legislation and holding hearings by videoconference.
The House had initially planned to vote on the proposal this week, but on Wednesday Pelosi cancelled those plans, instead saying during a leadership call that the House will move forward with a bipartisan committee to review the policy. The bipartisan group of lawmakers will include McGovern, House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, and the House Administration Committee's chair, Zoe Lofgren, and ranking member, Rodney Davis.
Some House Republicans are objecting to any remote voting plans, arguing that the founders intended for members to vote in person.
“I think it's a terrible idea,” Rep. Jim Jordan told reporters, adding that he came back to Washington, DC, specifically to speak against proxy voting during the upcoming House Rules Committee hearing. “What is it, 200-plus years we've been— Congress has been meeting? And you meet in person, you debate, and you vote in person. So I think it’s that fundamental.
"And the idea that we're going to now let someone else vote for us because we tell him how to vote — what happens when there's a procedure motion that comes up? How do you handle that?” Jordan continued. “It's supposed to be in person in a debate. Because, I mean, we're [a] representative democracy, and you need someone there representing the constituents back home and fighting for the positions and issues that you told them you're going to fight for.”
Republicans acknowledge that the House’s Democratic majority gives them virtually no power to stop the measure, and they have resigned to ceremoniously objecting.
"The Democrats got the majority if they want to do it. They can do it," Jordan said. "We['ve] just got to make the argument, do the best we can — but if they're determined to do it, and they have the votes, obviously they can. They can get it done. I think it's just wrong, just flat out wrong."
During the 1918 flu pandemic, when an estimated 675,000 Americans died, Congress passed critical legislation with unanimous consent — just a few members were present to vote. That’s what the House and Senate have been doing since the coronavirus pandemic forced Congress to stop full sessions in person, but those votes can be stopped by any member who shows up to oppose them. With more coronavirus recovery legislation on the way, getting every member of Congress to agree will only get more difficult.
Rep. Clay Higgins of Louisiana told reporters that Congress should be in session to debate “significant measures” that impact the entire country.
"I don't support it at all,” Higgins said of proxy voting. “It is completely outside of what the founders intended. The technology at the time was voting by proxy or by courier, and they clearly did not support that. We're to assemble and thus be held accountable. Changes in technologies come and go, but accountability ... was what the founders sought. So I have zero support. I will vehemently fight against remote voting or proxy voting.”
Rep. Andy Harris of Maryland echoed Higgins’ sentiment.
“Oh, I don't think we should,” Harris told reporters when asked if the House should move forward with remote voting. “We should be here in person to vote. That's the way it’s been done for 200 years; that's the way we should do it now.”
The House Rules Committee will likely meet to consider the changes. The House is expected to then quickly vote on the new rules.
McGovern recommended proxy voting as a possibility in mid-March after his committee conducted a monthlong study on voting options amid the global health pandemic. The committee released a final presentation on its recommendation during a Democratic caucus meeting last week.
As early as mid-March, House members from both parties signed on to a letter urging Pelosi and House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy to allow remote voting, not long after President Donald Trump announced guidelines restricting gatherings of 10 people or fewer.
This story was updated after Speaker Nancy Pelosi cancelled this week's vote on the House's voting by proxy plan and instead moved to establish a committee to study the idea.
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